A review of the Early Acheulian evidence from South Asia

by Parth R. Chauhan

The Initial Dispersal of the Acheulian out of Africa
The Early Acheulian of South Asia
Northern Pakistan
Madhya Pradesh
Tamil Nadu
Associated cognitive attributes
Summary and Conclusions


top  Abstract

South Asia represents the easternmost geographical occurrence of typical Acheulian biface assemblages in spatial and temporal abundance. All Acheulian evidence from this region is found in a rich mosaic of diverse palaeoenvironmental, geographical, and landform contexts, highlighting the dynamic adaptive and behavioral strategies of South Asian hominins during the Pleistocene. These assemblages have been traditionally categorised as either Early or Late Acheulian, based primarily on the absence or presence of certain tool-types or evident techniques. The earliest Acheulian evidence in South Asia is represented by unique technological attributes such as the absence of the Levallois technique, a relatively low number of cleavers, and a higher presence of core-tools and choppers, when compared with the Late Acheulian. Recent excavations and associated dating efforts by investigators working in several parts of peninsular India have revealed that the Early Acheulian in South Asia may extend well beyond the Matuyama/Brunhes transition. However, the frequency of these early occurrences within the subcontinent is low, reasons for which are currently unknown. In contrast, there is a significant and marked intensification in hominin activity and land-use from the Middle Pleistocene and onwards. South Asian Acheulian tool-types are generally comparable in techno-morphology with similar assemblages known from other parts of the Old World and represent direct technological influence from Africa, where the earliest Acheulian sites are documented. This paper reviews the evidence for the Early Acheulian in South Asia and discusses the unique attributes that separate such assemblages from the Late Acheulian, generally found in younger geomorphological contexts.

top  Introduction

Until about two decades ago, most prehistorians estimated that early hominin specie(s) did not migrate from Africa much earlier than 1 myr ago. In fact, older evidence outside the African continent, in the form of hominin fossils and/or stone tool assemblages, had usually been met with skepticism. However, a growing body of recent evidence has challenged the younger chronologies from several regions and this new data points to a significantly earlier exodus of Homo from Africa. This is supported by the early dates for hominin fossils, by Swisher et al. (1994) in Southeast Asia and by Gabunia et al. (2000) in Eurasia. Simultaneously, this new evidence raises important issues about the rate and temporal/geographical extent of this dispersal.

The earliest archaeological evidence outside of Africa compliments the known fossil evidence and comes from such localities as 'Ubeidiya (Tchernov 1995), Java, Longuppo Cave (Wanpo et al. 1995), Riwat and Pabbi Hills (Dennell et al. 1988; Hurcombe and Dennell, 1989), Dmanisi (Gabunia et al., 2000), potentially Dursunlu, southern Anatolia (Gulec et al. 1999) and c. 2.0 mya artifacts from the Jordan valley (Tchernov 1995). Interestingly, the earliest lithic assemblages outside the African continent are found in the form of core-chopper (non-biface) artifacts (Mode 1). All bifacial material (Mode 2) known from these regions of the Old World post-dates most Mode 1 assemblages. Some recent reviews and discussions on regional hominin dispersals and colonization are offered by Arribas and Palmqvist (1999), Dennell (2003), Larick and Ciochon (1996), and Rolland (1998).

The technological innovation and maturation of the Acheulian Industrial Complex (Mode 2) represents the intellectual success of Pleistocene Homo. The earliest Acheulian sites are found in East Africa at approximately 1.6 to 1.4 myr. While the dates vary broadly, some well-known examples of this phase are found at Konso-Gardula (Asfaw et al., 1992), Peninj (Domínguez-Rodrigo et al., 2002; Isaac and Curtis, 1974), Olduvai Gorge (Leakey, 1971), Kariandusi (Gowlett and Crompton, 1994), Olorgesailie (Potts et al., 1999), and Kilombe (Crompton and Gowlett, 1993). When hominin remains and Early Acheulian tools are associated within a given horizon in Africa, the species is always either Homo ergaster or Homo erectus, rather than Homo habilis or Paranthropus boisei (Larick and Ciochon, 1996). The Acheulian tradition is represented by a suite of attributes that have been progressively standardized over time. For example, the selection of raw materials, preparation of cores, and bifacial flaking techniques are all hallmark characters of the Acheulian tradition.

top  The Initial Dispersal of the Acheulian out of Africa

From Africa, the Acheulian gradually spread throughout the Old World until it reached its eastern-most geographical domain, the Indian subcontinent. Clark (1994) has reviewed the Acheulian evidence in global context and highlights the geographical distribution of both Mode 1 and Mode 2 assemblages. The absence of Acheulian bifaces within early Pleistocene sediments in East and Southeast Asia suggest that Homo must have initially left Africa before the Acheulian stage appeared in East Africa. Furthermore, in recent years, Homo erectus is being viewed as an Asian development rathern than an African species (Klein, 1999). In addition to these early sites, a second dispersal from Africa is represented exclusively by Acheulian sites dating to the Middle Pleistocene - signifying the first appearance of Mode 2 in northwest and southern Europe. The European bifaces are generally manufactured on flint and from nodules. Bifaces here are also produced on large flakes but the sites are not as common or rich as in Africa and other regions. The actual timing of the initial colonization of Europe is still an intense debate, where some researchers favor either a lengthy chronology reaching into the Early Pleistocene or a shorter chronology dating to the Middle Pleistocene (Dennell, 1983; Carbonell et al., 1995). The upper time-bracket for the Acheulian varies from region to region, but most evidence points to its gradual transformation into Middle Palaeolithic flake-based assemblages (Mode 3) at ca. 250 kyr, when Acheulian bifaces decrease significantly (Foley and Lahr, 1997).

The Middle Pleistocene site of Boxgrove (age of ~500 kyr) is a prime example of occupation throughout the interglacial Oxygen Isotope Stage 13 (Roberts et al., 1997). However, the southern margin zones of Europe remain poorly known, but localities with Mode 1 and Mode 2 assemblages have been identified (Bailey, 1995). The Acheulian sites of Torralba and Ambrona in Spain represent one of the ideal geoarchaeological investigations, carried out by Butzer (1965) and Howell (1966). At Torralba for example, the large quantities of elephant fossils in association with Acheulian handaxes were originally interpreted by Howell (1966) to reflect early hominin hunting and butchering strategies. Later work by Binford (1987) and Shipman and Rose (1983) challenged these interpretations and proved that site-formation processes were responsible for the 'cut marks' on the elephant bones, rather than human activity. An estimate based on the fauna and geology places Torralba between 500 and 200 kyr (Klein, 1987). A recent review of the investigations at Torralba and Ambrona is provided by Freeman (1994).

The distribution of the Acheulian in West Asia is generally restricted to Transcaucasia, eastern Anatolia, and the Levant. The evidence from Iran is limited and only isolated bifaces have been collected (Smith, 1986). The various assemblages from this region can be grouped into two general types: core-chopper industries and assemblages with bifaces. The bifacial industries are usually represented as Early Acheulian, Middle Acheulian (only in the Levant), Upper Acheulian, and the Acheulo-Yabrudian (Bar-Yosef, 1998). As in Africa, core-chopper and the Acheulian industries in West Asia are temporally and spatially distributed. In Lebanon and Syria, the Early Acheulian is also recognized as an industry with high occurrences of core-choppers and some crude, large handaxes exhibiting large flake scars and jagged edges. Some of what is known from the regions of Lebanon and Syria was obtained through the study of terraces and the majority of these sites were classified as Early and Middle Acheulian, first on the basis of associated stratigraphy and later through typological characteristics (for example, see Bridgland et al., 2003). At the site of Latamne (Clark, 1969) in Syria, for example, researchers view 500 ka as the latest potential date.

Acheulian bifaces are found as far north as the Jordan Valley of Israel (at 'Ubeidiya) by 1.4 mya (Bar-Yosef, 1998). The site is located on the edge of the western escarpment of the Jordan Rift valley. The geological structure is an anticline with several folds disturbed by faults. The lithostratigraphy has exposed the lithic and bone assemblages, accumulated within complex alluvial and delta deposits. Another early site is Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, which lies on the eastern edge of a vast, basalt-covered region on the River Jordan in the Hula Valley in Israel (Goren-Inbar and Saragusti, 1996). The cultural layers at this locality are set in a depositional sequence that has collected above a lava flow with normal polarity and dated to ca. 780 kyr (Feibel et al., 1998; Verosub et al., 1998). Along with 'Ubeidiya, this site is interpreted to be the evidence of a group of hominins that migrated from Africa at the initial level (Bar-Yosef, 1987).

The presence of Mode 1 and Acheulian assemblages in the Arabian peninsula may represent two major dispersal systems outside of Africa - one in the Early Pleistocene and another during the Middle to Late Pleistocene (Petraglia, 2003). Variations in manufacturing techniques and tool-type frequencies may reflect temporal changes in the Acheulian assemblages in this region. Bifaces are reported solely from the western 'subzones' where they are made from a variety of materials such as flint, basalt, and metamorphic rocks (Bar-Yosef, 1998). The Early Acheulian here was traditionally defined by the recognition of Mode 1 forms and crude bifaces, and the presence of some ovate and cordiform handaxes (Petraglia, 2003).

Typical Acheulian bifaces are not common in East Asia and Southeast Asia, and peninsular India represents the easternmost concentration of bifaces in the Old World (see Movius, 1944; 1948). Thus from current research, the (shifting) 'Movius Line' (Coon, 1965), which distinguishes between the Acheulian and the non-biface industries, currently divides Turkey. In the last few decades, archaeologists have reported bifaces from the 'Mode 1 zone' (East and Southeast Asia). For example, the localities of Dingcun (Clark and Schick, 1988) and the Nihewan Valley (Schick et al., 1991) in China, and Chongokni in South Korea (Schick and Zhuan, 1993) have yielded large, bifacial cutting-tools, although these occurrences are not well dated. A more recent example comes from Bose in southern China, where large bifacial cutting-tools have been reported and date to approximately 800 kyr (Hou et al., 2000). However, these specimens lack the characteristic features that are representative of the Acheulian industry. Although some of the Bose specimens have been classified as bifaces, they retain significant amounts of cortex on their butts and are not symmetrical in their form as comparable to Acheulian handaxes. In addition, they are not as refined as typical Acheulian bifaces and lack secondary retouch and edge-shaping.

Corvinus (2003:6) has designated some of these specimens as bifacial pointed tools or picks and highlights the absence of true cleavers in East and Southeast Asia. Additional evidence of Acheulian-like assemblages from this zone also do not conform to classic Acheulian features (Pope and Keates, 1994). Therefore, until further evidence is forthcoming, it is reasonable to accept that most of these biface assemblages in the 'Mode 1 zone' do not represent the Acheulian techno-complex directly (see Corvinus, 2003). Such sporadic finds probably represent an independent regional and random development of the bifacial-flaking technique, but which did not attain cultural identity and morphological consistency over time. Nonetheless, the author feels that they should still be designated as Mode 2 types, given that most of the cortex has been removed from both faces of the specimens. In other words, Mode 2 assemblages in global context may be recognized as comprising any assemblages of bifacially-flaked tools (including Acheulian-like as well as Acheulian types).

top  The Early Acheulian of South Asia

South Asia is well-known for its long and rich record of palaeolithic and related Quaternary evidence in the form of fossils and dynamic landscape evolution. However, much of this evidence has not been published in international journals and thus, inter-regional correlations and comparative studies have not been forthcoming in relation to Old World palaeoanthropology. South Asia or the Indian subcontinent essentially comprises the regions of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. To the west of peninsular India is the Arabian Sea, to the east, the Bay of Bengal, and to the south is the Indian Ocean. The entire region comprises a diverse spectrum of ecological and topographical zones combined with a complex geological history. The north is dominated by the Greater and Lesser Himalaya and the Siwalik hills, all ranges almost geographically parallel and temporally successive to each other. This mountainous terrain includes northern Pakistan, northern India, most parts of Nepal, and Bhutan. South of these mountain and hill ranges are the Indo-Gangetic plains located in all South Asian countries except Sri Lanka and Bhutan. The plains are followed (to the south) by the great Thar Desert (in eastern Pakistan and northwestern India), and the Vindhyan range of hills. This hills are located north of the Deccan Plateau, a prominent landscape of peninsular India, and includes the Western and Eastern Ghats (ranges of hills). Although most parts of India are recognized as being tropical or sub-tropical (Mohapatra, 1985), such landscapes are especially prominent along the coasts of peninsular India, southeastern India (Kerala), and northeastern India or east of Bangladesh. The Subcontinent is also interspersed with a large number of rivers and streams, and although agricultural land makes up over 65% of the region, numerous ecological and geographic features such as deciduous woodlands, tropical evergreen forests, savanna, semi-arid and arid scrub lands, arid sand deserts, and periglacial loessic landforms (Korisettar and Rajaguru, 2002), caves, canyons, rockshelters, lakes, pools, and springs are also found in high numbers. Excepting the rivers of Narmada and Tapi, most rivers flow from east to west and exhibit unique fluviosedimentary regimes.

Lower Palaeolithic assemblages from the Indian subcontinent have generally been assigned to either the Acheulian (biface) or Soanian (non-biface) traditions (Misra, 1987). Acheulian assemblages are found in abundance throughout the Indian subcontinent in varying temporal and technological modes. South Asian prehistorians have generally adopted both European and African terminology to categorize the techno-morphological similarities of the assemblages. While the Acheulian-Soanian dichotomy remains an unresolved issue, recent work shows that most Soanian assemblages may post-date the Acheulian (Gaillard and Mishra, 2001). This has been assessed primarily from the geological contexts in which the Soanian and Acheulian assemblages in the Siwalik region are found. Chauhan (2003) highlights such factors as artifact density, extent of cortex-removal, the availability of suitable quartzite clasts, and recently-dated geological features to explain the behavioral and chronological differences between the Acheulian and Soanian assemblages. Soanian assemblages are known to occur in significantly younger geomorphological contexts than the Acheulian assemblages in the Siwalik region. In fact, the Soanian may represent a unique adaptive strategy contemporary to Late Acheulian and later (Middle Palaeolithic) lithic assemblages.

Although there is a strong possibility for the presence of Mode 1 assemblages (contemporary with Early Acheulian assemblages) in the Siwalik region and peninsular India, associated stratigraphical and geochronological evidence is currently lacking. However it is important to note that Mode 1 assemblages have been securely dated to the Lower Pleistocene in the Siwalik exposures of Pakistan (Dennell, 2004). However, these and other Mode 1 assemblages in the Indian subcontinent do not show any stratigraphical or technological evidence of evolving into subsequent Mode 2 (Acheulian) assemblages (as known from Olduvai Gorge, for example). In addition, these early Mode 1 assemblages are not techno-culturally related to the significantly younger Soanian assemblages in the Siwalik region, nor to the known Mode 1 assemblages in peninsular India. One explanation for this discontinuity in the cultural record may be that the earliest hominin groups (representing Mode 1) outside of Africa (early Lower Pleistocene) may not have been successful enough in adapting to new landscapes and resources (Dennell, 2003). However, the later migrations, represented by the Acheulian-producing hominins, proved to be more wide-spread and appear to have established long-term ecological adaptations. This adaptive success is reflected in the continuity of the archaeological record from the late Lower Pleistocene (ca. 1 myr) and onwards.

Although consistent fossil evidence is currently lacking, it has been generally assumed, from shared techno- cultural features of the Acheulian in global context, that the Acheulian assemblages in the Indian subcontinent belong to a South Asian H. erectus. These assemblages have been traditionally divided into either Early or Late developmental phases, depending on their typo-technological features and associated metrical analyses (R.S. Pappu, 2001). While the term 'Middle Acheulian' has been occasionally applied to 'transitional' assemblages (see Jayaswal, 1978 for example), the term is not as common today in the South Asian context. Early Acheulian assemblages are generally 'characterized by such core tools as handaxes, choppers, polyhedrons, and spheroids, a low number of cleavers and flake tools, the predominant use of the stone-hammer technique, and the absence of the Levallois technique' (Misra, 1987: 117). Early Acheulian bifaces in South Asia are often asymmetrical, large with thick butts or mid-sections and possess large and bold flake scars (albeit irregular), indicative of hard-hammer percussion.

In contrast, Late Acheulian assemblages are represented 'by the low proportion of bifaces, the high ratio of cleavers to hand axes, the very high ratio of flake tools like scrapers, the extensive use of the soft-hammer technique, and the knowledge of the Levallois and discoid-core techniques' (Misra, 1987: 117). The Late Acheulian assemblages are generally smaller, thinner, and more refined, with a significant increase in the degree of retouching and controlled bifacial thinning/flaking. Although only a small percentage of important Lower Palaeolithic sites have been studied in detail, Mishra (1994) and R.S. Pappu (2001) observe that Late Acheulian sites are found predominantly in surface contexts, whereas the known Early Acheulian sites (albeit sparse) are usually in buried contexts. A recent review of the Acheulian of peninsular India is offered by R.S. Pappu (2001) and the most recent review of non-bifacial assemblages of India was done by Jayaswal (1982). Additional syntheses on and the significance of the South Asian prehistoric record are provided by Dennell (2000-01), Korisettar and Rajaguru (1998), Misra (1989; 2001), Petraglia ( 1998; 2001), and Sali (1990).

In the 1960s, Khatri (1962; 1966) argued for an indigenous origin for the South Asian Acheulian from Oldowan tools at Mahadeo Piparia, Narmada Valley in Central India. (He was later disproved by Supekar (1968) and criticized by subsequent workers). A similar conclusion was also reached by Armand (1985) from his work at the non-biface site of Durkadi, also in the Narmada Basin. Wakankar (1973) also proposed that the Acheulian horizon at an excavated rock-shelter at Bhimbhetka was underlain by a 'pebble-tool' horizon. However, additional excavations by Misra (1985) at the adjacent Shelter III F-23 did not support Wakankar's claims for a pre-Acheulian industry. Today, it is a generally-accepted fact that the South Asian Acheulian represents early migrations of Homo from Africa sometime in the Lower Pleistocene (Petraglia, 2003). This is also supported by recent genetic studies on regional populations (see James and Petraglia, 2004). While the large number of Late Acheulian sites in peninsular India reflects an intensification of hominin activity during the Middle Pleistocene in South Asia, the low profile of the Early Acheulian facies is equally noteworthy. Currently, only several sites are known to possess associated attributes and until recently, very few of these sites have been studied in detail and through multidisciplinary approaches.

An important issue that remains un-resolved, is establishing the initial timing of the colonization of the subcontinent. Only two well-dated Acheulian sites (find-spots) are known from Pakistan, and the majority of the Early Acheulian evidence comes from India (Fig. 1). In recent years, the application of absolute dating methods (e.g., Thorium/Uranium, Uranium-series, Electron Spin Resonance, and so forth) has become increasingly useful in constructing a chronological framework for the South Asian Lower Palaeolithic. As a result, the earliest known Acheulian localities from South Asia have been securely dated to ~400 kyr and continued to persist in peninsular India until ~125 kyr (possibly longer), before yielding to Middle Palaeolithic flake-dominated assemblages (Mishra 1995; Rendell and Dennell 1985; also see James and Petraglia, 2004) (Table 1). For example, at Teggihalli, Nevasa, and Yedurwadi, the dates exceed 350 kyr from three different geographic contexts, demonstrating that the Acheulian extends beyond the maximum dating limit of the uranium-series method (Pappu, 2001). In some areas of the subcontinent, the younger Late Acheulian evidence may have persisted well into the Upper Pleistocene, often being contemporary with early Middle Palaeolithic assemblages in other parts of the region. This temporal disparity may represent an irregular pattern of hominin settlement and mobility through time, where some technological innovations persisted longer while others developed more rapidly. Some of the most important Early Acheulian evidence is discussed below, including recent discoveries and associated chronologies (where applicable).

Figure 1: The geographical distribution of well-known Early Acheulian sites in the Indian subcontinent.
Figure 1: The geographical distribution of well-known Early Acheulian sites in the Indian subcontinent.

Table 1.  Important Early Acheulian sites from South Asia and associated dates.
Table 1. Important Early Acheulian sites from South Asia and associated dates.

top  Northern Pakistan

Acheulian handaxes have been reported from Dina and Jalalpur, in the Jhelum Basin of northern Pakistan (Allchin, 1995). These primary-context find-spots were found to be associated with tilted Siwalik sediments and are estimated to be between 700 kyr to 500 kyr old, primarily based on the palaeomagnetic studies done by R.G.H. Raynolds (Allchin, 1995; Rendell and Dennell, 1985). While the beds in which the handaxes occur show normal polarity indicating an age younger than c. 700 kyr, the artifacts predate the tectonic event which tilted the beds (estimated to have occurred around 400 to 600 kyr ago) (Gaillard and Mishra, 2001). Fourteen additional artifacts, including two handaxes, were also found near Jalalpur in a gritstone/conglomerate lense, possibly of the same approximate age (Allchin, 1995). Rich palaeolithic workshops are known from the Rohri Hills (Biagi and Cremaschi, 1988), some of which may be Early Acheulian.

top  India

As mentioned earlier, India contains a greater amount of Acheulian evidence than its periphery zones (Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka). The known Early Acheulian evidence has been reported from central and southern India; sites in the northern part of the country are sparse. One reason for this disparity may be the Indo-Gangetic plains, where an extensive floodplain (alluvium) context may have been unsuitable for prehistoric occupation and resource exploitation. The known sites are found in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. Comparable Early Acheulian sites have not been reported from eastern and northeastern India.

top  Rajasthan

In the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, evidences of integrated high-energy fluvial systems dating back to the Late Tertiary and Early Pleistocene have been recorded (Korisettar and Rajaguru, 1998). In the region south of the Aravallis, Mewar, and along the tributaries of the Chambal, Acheulian artifacts have been documented within conglomeratic deposits. Work by Misra and Rajaguru (1988; 1989) in the Nagaur District of Rajasthan demonstrated that environmental conditions were ideal for Pleistocene hominins. Multidisciplinary studies on the playas and dune sediments around Didwana have aided in reconstructing the evolutionary sequence of the Thar desert, especially along its eastern margins (Misra, 1995; Wasson et al., 1984).

The oldest sediments in the Didwana region are represented by the Jayal Formation, an extensive boulder conglomerate dated to the Early Quaternary (Misra, 1987). Following its deposition, the gravel bed was subjected to uplift and covered by fine marly sediments, represented by the Amarpura Formation. Artifacts from this formation range from early Acheulean to Late Middle Palaeolithic-Early Upper Palaeolithic (Misra, 1987:102). A primary Early Acheulian locality here is 16R, a sand dune where a 19 meter trench was excavated by Misra (1995). This work provided a sound palaeoclimatic record and the work revealed an alternating sequence of stabilized/pedogenised dune surfaces with areas of active sand accumulation (Mishra, 1994:60). Artifacts were recovered from several horizons from within the stabilized sand dune and shows evidence of hominin occupation in a combination of lake/playa/desert environments (Misra and Rajaguru, 1989). Excavations at Singi Talav in the Amarpura Formation exposed an early Acheulian industry on quartzite and quartz, and comprised hand axes, polyhedrons, spheroids, cores, flakes, and a few crudely-produced cleavers (Misra, 1987:104). The raw material was available from the nearby Aravalli outcrops and also gathered as clasts from then-extant stream beds (Misra, 1987). Furthermore, the artifacts are in fresh condition and are found in the fine calcareous alluvium, indicating that hominin groups settled in an environment with pools, lakes, and wide and shallow floodplains. Radiometric dating by Raghavan et al. (1989) places the lowermost cultural horizons at an age of more than 390 kyr (Mishra, 1992).

top  Gujarat

The peninsular region of Gujarat, the western most state of India, is also rich in palaeolithic evidence and reflects hominin adaptation and mobility in relation to changing sea levels. Many of the sites are associated with miliolite and/or gravels. In Saurashtra, handaxes of Early Acheulian type have been recovered from gravels at Umrethi on the Hiran River and at Adi Chadi Wao near Junagarh (Marathe, 1981). The deposits represent a lower sea-level in the past (Gaillard and Mishra, 2001) and are overlain by miliolite deposits, dated to 195 kyr and 65 kyr ago, respectively (Baskaran et al., 1986) - indicating the minimum dates for the Acheulian sites in this region. The site of Umrethi is located approximately 20 kms inland from the southern coast of Saurashtra and an excavated trench revealed three artifacts in fresh condition from a buried channel gravel 24 meters below the surface (Marathe, 1981). The Gujarat Acheulian record shows that while Late Acheulian sites are often associated with miliolite pebbles, the known Early Acheulian artifacts occur in gravels that do not contain miliolite (Gaillard and Mishra, 2001; Marathe, 1981).

top  Madhya Pradesh

The Narmada Valley in Central India stretches from Amarkantak in the east to the Gulf of Cambay in the west ( ~1300 kms long). This valley is long known for its rich record of vertebrate fossils and prehistoric sites and numerous Quaternary and archaeological investigations have been conducted since the 19th century (Agrawal et al., 1988; Kennedy, 2000). In addition, it has yielded the only known Middle Pleistocene hominin fossils in the subcontinent (Sankhyan, 1997; Sonakia and Biswas, 1998). It is noteworthy to mention that although Khatri' s claims of an indigenous Acheulian from the Narmada Valley were refuted by Sen and Ghosh (1963) and Supekar (1968) in the 1960s, similar evidence was later reported by Supekar (1985) from the same site (Mahadeo Piparia). In addition, Armand (1983) also reported the presence of a few early Acheulian bifaces at Durkadi, where the artifacts are predominantly part of a 'pebble tool industry'- suggesting the evolution of the Acheulian in peninsular India. Although this concept is not accepted today, subsequent 'investigations at different localities in the Narmada Valley by many workers,….., have established that the Lower Group [of the Narmada stratigraphic sequence] contains an Early Acheulian industry…..' (Misra, 1987: 111).

The earliest depositional phase of the Narmada Quaternary sequence is represented by the Pilikarar Formation, which rests on the Cretaceous Deccan Traps (Tiwari & Bhai, 1997). The Pilikarar Formation is considered to underlie the Dhansi Formation of Lower Pleistocene Age and dated palaeomagnetically by Rao et al. (1997). The exposed section at the type locality (Pilikarar) comprises four distinct strata (bottom to top): a) a two-meter thick laterite bed; b) 0.5 meter thick spongy laterite; c) a boulder bed (0.3 to 3.0 meters thick); and d) calcareous yellowish-brown soil with iron nodules of varying thickness. Recent investigations by Patnaik and Chauhan (2004) in the Narmada Basin resulted in the discovery of numerous assemblages ranging from the Lower to Upper Palaeolithic, including the locality of Pilikarar (Patnaik, 2004). If the dating of the Dhansi and Pilikarar Formations is accurate, a part of the palaeolithic evidence at Pilikarar (Fig. 2) may represent one of the oldest Early Acheulian assemblages in South Asia ( of late Lower Pleistocene age).

Figure 2:   An Early Acheulian assemblage from the central Narmada Basin, peninsular India.
Figure 2. An Early Acheulian assemblage from the central Narmada Basin, peninsular India.

Typologically, the bifaces broadly resemble other Early Acheulian assemblages in that they lack a sense of refinement and possess thick mid-sections and large flake scars. The Levallois technique is not clearly evident and younger artifact types are absent at the site. The Pilikarar assemblages come from two distinct stratigraphical contexts. The first assemblage appears to be in primary context from its location above a gravel/boulder deposit. Here, the artifacts are in fresh condition and have been exposed recently by gully erosion. Some of the artifacts from above the gravel include handaxes, cleavers, discoidal cores, large unretouched flakes, and debitage. The second assemblage was documented from within the gravel (thus in rolled condition) and is comprised of cores, several choppers, and a unifacial cleaver-type artifact on a large side-struck flake. Coming from a gravel context and in rolled condition, the latter assemblage cannot yet be assigned an industrial name. However, it does signify an older assemblage than the fresh Early Acheulian types found above the gravel.

top  Maharashtra

The state of Maharashtra in Central India is known for its rich record of prehistoric evidence spanning from the Lower Palaeolithic to the Neolithic. A number of Palaeolithic occurrences were identified along cliff sections of the Pravara River, in Upland Maharashtra during the 1960s and 1970s (Sankalia, 1974). At Nevasa, a gravel layer lying un-conformably on bedrock yielded Acheulian artifacts (Corvinus, 1981). The gravel/bedrock interface lies approximately two meters higher than the present-day river. This gravel was buried throughout by late Pleistocene sediments, and the exposure of the artifacts seems to have occurred during the Holocene incision (Gaillard and Mishra, 2001). Horizontal excavations at Chirki-Nevasa produced 2,400 artifacts from an area of 64 m2 (Corvinus, 1967; 1970; 1983). The tools were designated as handaxes, choppers, polyhedrons, cleavers, knives, and picks. The assemblage was thought to belong to the Early Acheulian phase, based primarily on three attributes: i) a high proportion of core tools; ii) the predominant use of the stone-hammer technique; and iii) the absence of a Levallois technology (Corvinus, 1983). This site has been classified as a workshop/occupation site and cleavers occur in slightly higher numbers than handaxes while choppers are also prominent (R.S. Pappu, 2001). Additional metrical analysis by Joshi and Marathe (1975-76; 1985) revealed that the Nevasa bifaces are larger and less symmetrical than those at sites like Paleru in southern Andhra Pradesh. The cement from the gravel in the Early Acheulian horizons at Nevasa was dated to more than 400 kyr (Mishra, 1994).

Additional sites in the region that show similar archaeological features and potentially early ages are Bori (on the river Kukdi) and Moregaon (on the river Karha) (both associated with volcanic ash beds) in the Bhima Basin of Maharashtra. The assemblage from Bori is dominated by trihedral handaxes and closely resembles Early Acheulian localities known from Africa and 'Ubeidiya (Gaillard and Mishra, 2001). Although the initial dating at the site of Bori showed a controversial age of 1.4 myr (Korisettar et al., 1988), further work indicated that the artifacts here may be approximately 600 kyr old or younger (Mishra, 1994). However, the latest efforts by geologists have resulted in the correlation of the volcanic ash to the Youngest Toba Tephra (YTT), dated to be 75,000 years (Shane et al., 1995). However, Gaillard and Mishra (2001:82) state that the Acheulian assemblage at Bori is above the tephra and "represents the most convincing evidence that the correlation of the tephra with the Toba eruption, inspite of the chemical similarity, is erroneous". The inconsistency and controversy of the Bori evidence indicates a need for further work at the locality and others like it. Acheulian bifaces from Moregaon (and adjoining areas) also possess an Early Acheulian character and also suggest a substantially early age (Kale et al., 1993; Mishra et al., 2002). Here, the artifacts occur on the surface of the regolith and are less closely associated with the tephra (than at Bori), which is at the top of a sequence of clays (Gaillard and Mishra, 2001).

top  Karnataka

Systematic surveys and excavations have also been conducted in the Hunsgi-Baichbal Valley (Karnataka) since the late 1960s, exposing the presence of over 100 Acheulian occurrences in an erosional basin measuring 500 km2 (Paddayya, 1975; 1982; 1991; Paddayya et al., 2002; Petraglia et al., 2004). The localities are found in a variety of depositional contexts: situated on the valley floor, along the plateau edge, in pediments and along streams (Paddaya et al., 2002). Paddayya and Petraglia (1993) have observed that the artifact horizons in this region are close to the surface and overlie weathered bedrock. They further classify the sites according to their geomorphological contexts and illustrate that a wide range of disturbances is seen (e.g., weathering, patination, reburial, etc.). There is a noticeable technological diversity with the Acheulian in this region and most of the Early Acheulian sites are located in the Hunsgi Valley, where artifacts are produced on a variety of raw materials.

Probably the most important Early Acheulian site from the Hunsgi complex is Isampur, representing the first known occurrence of artifacts in a quarry context in India (Paddayya and Petraglia, 1997; Petraglia et al., 1999; Petraglia et al., 2004). Here, primary and buried limestone outcrops were exploited by Acheulian groups for stone-tool manufacture. Excavations at the locality displayed large slabs and cores of limestone that were flaked and fashioned into handaxes, cleavers, and other tools. The debitage is present in abundance and shows variation in size, thus displaying all (past) preserved stages of tool use- from the procurement stage to the retouch stage. Recent ESR dating at the locality of Isampur indicates a potentially early colonization of this region - at more than 1.2 myr ago (Paddayya et al., 2002). Most tool-types are classified to be handaxes, choppers, cleavers, picks, knives, polyhedrons, scrapers, discoids, and unifaces. Most importantly, the Hunsgi-Baichbal investigations led to an palaeoecological assessment of the distribution of archaeological occurrences. Through an inferred monsoonal palaeoclimate and the identification of seasonal springs and ponds, an Acheulian settlement scenario has been proposed, consisting of wet-season dispersal of hominin groups and dry season aggregation of these populations (Paddayya, 1982).

Further evidence of the Early Acheulian comes from the site of Hunsgi in the Gulbarga District of Karnataka (Paddayya, 1982). The Acheulian deposits (10 to 35 cm thick) were found to be in a compact gravel context, where the artifacts were produced primarily on limestone obtained in pebble/cobble form from the stream bed and as angular blocks from the plateau (Misra, 1987; Paddayya, 1982). The assemblage comprised handaxes, cleavers, scrapers, polyhedrons, choppers, picks, and knives. The predominance of core tools and the use of the stone-hammer technique suggest an Early Acheulian character for this site (Misra, 1987). The site of Teggihalli, where Early Acheulian tool-types were recovered, also seems to be older than 350 kyr (Szabo et al., 1990).

The site of Yedurwadi is located in the Krishna Basin, which was explored initially by Joshi (1955) and later work was carried out intermittently by Pappu (1974; 1985; 2001) and Pappu and Deo (1994). The Early Acheulian assemblage (made on doleritic basalt) was recovered from a gravel context, which also preserved buried trees, represented by calcrete casts (Mishra, 1994). These calcrete deposits were dated to more than 400 kyr by the Th/U method (Kale, 1990). The artifact-yielding gravel lenses were found to be within an ancient floodplain sequence exposed recently in a meander cut-off (similar to Nevasa) (Gaillard and Mishra, 2001:82). Further evidence comes from the site of Almatti, where Korisettar (1985: 67) notes the absence of step or controlled flaking and its similarities with other Early Acheulian assemblages within the subcontinent.

top  Tamil Nadu

The most significant site in Tamil Nadu is Attirampakkam, located in the Kortallayar valley (southeast India), and the adjoining regions have been intermittently studied for over a century by various workers (De Terra and Paterson, 1939; Krishnaswami, 1938; Pappu, 1996). More recently, S. Pappu (2001) has been meticulously investigating the site since 1999 (with the application of numerous modern techniques for the first time), and has contributed in revising previous geological interpretations. Cultural levels at the site range from the Lower Palaeolithic to the Upper Palaeolithic, and the work has also resulted in the discovery of animal footprints within banded clay sediments (Pappu et al., 2003). Acheulian artifacts, predominantly on quartzite, occur in ferricretes and ferricritised gravels and include choppers, discoids, sub-spheroids, bifaces (with minimum symmetry), cleavers, knives, and scrapers (Pappu, 1996: 13). From geochemical studies and stratigraphic correlations, modes of tool use and discard have been preserved by episodic sedimentation at the site. Although the dating at this site is in progress, typological studies and geological observations at Attirampakkam point to a potentially early age of the lower Acheulian levels at the site - possibly between Late Lower and early Middle Pleistocene (S. Pappu: pers. comm.).

top  Associated cognitive attributes

The morphological variation in Lower Palaeolithic tool-types (i.e., bifaces) is known to be the result of such factors as raw material type, tool function, and variation in reduction technique (Santonja and Villa, 1990). This is also stressed by McPherron (2000:655) who argues that not enough attention has been given 'to much simpler levels of explanation that may say much less about mental capabilities'. He confronts this concept through a re- examination of published data-sets, used by others to show patterns in handaxe shape - a feature often used to highlight the existence of definitive mental templates or for increased mental abilities. McPherron (2000) further proposes that basic factors such as raw material types and intensity of reduction, are more suitable to explicate morphological diversity; emphasizing that handaxes shapes may not be a result of mental templates.

For the South Asian evidence, however, Petraglia et al. (1999) have argued for an alternative explanation. They believe that a learned strategy is being employed to consistently produce bifaces and that some of the lithic technology is goal-oriented (M. Petraglia: pers. comm.). The basis for such interpretations is provided by the evidence from the Hunsgi-Baichbal complex of sites where Acheulian quarry exploitation has been studied extensively ( Paddayya, 2001). For example, Petraglia et al. (2004) emphasize complex spatial memory and anticipatory land- use strategies as unique cognitive traits of the hominins in this part of peninsular India. They also highlight (from the archaeological evidence) potential interactions and cooperation between individuals to explain systematic biface- production and related learning strategies. These diverse results and opinions between researchers implies the need for further investigations in understanding the varied behavioral patterns and regional cognitive development during the Acheulian occupation of the Old World.

top  Summary and Conclusions

From the evidence known, to date, the Early Acheulian industry of South Asia represents one of the earliest dispersal patterns of Homo (from Africa through West Asia) into the subcontinent. This dispersal appears to be parallel in time with similar sites known from Europe. The archaeological evidence from the Levant is also temporally congruent and associated technological attributes match with the evidence from South Asia. Some technological features shared between all these regions include bifaces that are not symmetrical and often possess thick mid-sections. From a palaeoenvironmental perspective, these Early Acheulian hominins appear to have adapted to a range of landscapes and ecological habitats. It is also important to note that almost all these regions in the Old World where Early Acheulian assemblages were introduced, Late Acheulian assemblages are also generally found. This technological refinement over time presumably reflects complex mobility patterns as well as regional cultural evolution. Ultimately, classic Acheulian sites are not abundant east of the 'Movius Line' and the sites are not as rich in their artifact-density as known from other regions. Although adequate explanations for this disparity are currently lacking, several investigators have attempted an assessment of the situation (e.g. Schick, 1994). For example, some have speculated that ecological or environmental conditions permitted a technology made of wood or bamboo, thus eliminating the need for Acheulian bifaces. However, these early Mode 1 assemblages do not show regional continuity in their techno-cultural evolution. The significant archaeological and temporal lag between these early assemblages and the Acheulian evidence in various parts of the Old World, possibly reflects the lack of adaptive success for these early Lower Pleistocene hominins.

From the lack of (convincing) Acheulian assemblages in East and Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent represents the easternmost occurrence of Mode 2 assemblages in the Old World (Clark, 1994). An increasing number of Lower Palaeolithic localities in this zone are now known to occur in a variety of ecological contexts, including montane regions, hill slopes, alluvial settings, coastal plains, and in rockshelters (Misra, 1989). However, definitive colonization and settlement patterns during the Early and Middle Pleistocene are not clear and very few Lower Palaeolithic sites have been excavated in South Asia (Chattopadhyaya et al., 2002). Nonetheless, recent research efforts by numerous investigators has resulted in a better understanding of ecological adaptations, technological innovations, and associated broad temporal frameworks. While Acheulian assemblages of South Asia broadly resemble those from Africa and Europe, there are differences in size, shapes, and specialized forms (R.S. Pappu, 2001). The Early Acheulian from the Indian subcontinent appears to share a suite of technological attributes with other similar assemblages from the Old World (McPherron, 2000; Petraglia, 2003; Wynn, and Tierson, 1990). Comparison of classic biface assemblages from India and East Africa illustrate that they are both a result of specific ecological preferences and represent unique modes of transport behaviors across a range of diverse landscapes (Noll and Petraglia, 2003). Additional shared attributes include a systematic production of certain tool-types and the application of various reduction techniques. Recent efforts in southern India at various sites have illustrated that Pleistocene hominins were exploiting a range of raw material types and forms. For example, Attirampakkam hominins were producing bifaces from quartzite cobbles and boulders, whereas Isampur hominins were taking advantage of the extensive limestone pediment, exposed in the form of large tabular clasts. This type of diverse raw material exploitation is visible across the Indian subcontinent and reflects rapid adaptation within a tectonic and monsoon-affected region. Such potential impacts of geological and environmental events (e.g. Toba super-eruption) have been highlighted by James and Petraglia (2004).

Despite the paucity of consistent absolute dates, the Early Acheulian of South Asia most certainly goes beyond the Brunhes-Matayuma boundary and represents the earliest evidence for bifacial technologies in this region. In addition to the above mentioned sites, R.S. Pappu (2001) also considers the sites of Laliltpur, Adamgarh, and Kuliana (Mayurbhanj) as Early Acheulian. Combined geomorphological investigations, metrical/typological studies, and preliminary dating efforts may indicate a broad techno-morphological transition from Early Acheulian to Late Acheulian sometime between 400 to 200 kyr in South Asia. Intriguingly, most Acheulian sites (Early and Late) in the subcontinent are open-air occurrences and the earliest occupational phases in rock-shelters and caves are predominantly represented by Late Acheulian and/or younger lithic cultures. The nature and timing of the global transition from Acheulian to Middle Palaeolithic assemblages represents an important shift in the technological organization of Pleistocene hominins, and is slightly varied in time and space across the Old World. From most cases however, it is clear that the Levallois technique was not widely employed or known during the Early Acheulian phase in South Asia, but was developed or introduced much later.

Recent efforts have resulted in new knowledge about the Acheulian and associated behavioral patterns from an under-studied region. Multidisciplinary investigations at sites in southern and central India have revealed that Lower and Middle Pleistocene hominins were exploiting a range of ecological habitats and associated resources. Most technological traits of the Early Acheulian in the region are universal (e.g. symmetry in form, standardized morphology, and methods of production) and shared with other assemblages from the Old World. Simultaneously, the South Asian evidence reflects unique and independent characters as well, some of which include unique modes of blank extraction from quarry contexts, regional reduction strategies, greater levels of cognitive flexibility, varied planning depth, symbolic features such as the presence of ochre and crystal fragments within archaeological horizons, the evidence of individual- and group-level behavioral configurations, dynamic land-use patterns, and a continued sequence of certain behavioral traits over time (Petraglia et al., 2004).

The goal of this overview was to highlight the current status of our knowledge about the Early Acheulian facies from South Asia, and its overall contribution in hypothesizing about modern human evolution in Asia (James and Petraglia, 2004). The Indian subcontinent offers palaeoanthropologists a unique opportunity to test dynamic behavioral models and establish new and insightful theoretical frameworks. The subcontinent lies directly between Africa to the west and Southeast Asia to the east from where the oldest Homo erectus specimens have been reported. Its geographical 'isolation' from the rest of the continent must have had important implications on the trajectories of hominin behavioral and cultural development. Another significant fact is that it straddles the Movius Line and represents the easternmost domain of rich Acheulian localities. Finally, this immensely rich source of prehistoric archaeological evidence plays a central role in understanding the evolution of the genus Homo in Asia, knowledge still evading Old World palaeoanthropology (see Dennell, 2000-01). The time-bracket for most prehistoric evidence and associated technological transitions within the subcontinent are perfectly synonymous with rapid encephalization in hominids which took place during the Middle Pleistocene (Ruff et al., 1997). If a comprehensive and accurate perspective of the Acheulian is to be gained, the South Asian record needs to be examined more closely and compared with the global record through additional multidisciplinary approaches.

top  Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank the National Geographic Society (Grant No. 7386-02) for awarding a research grant to carry out explorations in the Narmada Basin. A review of an earlier draft of this paper by Michael D. Petraglia, who provided critical suggestions and unpublished data, is also gratefully acknowledged.

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Parth R. Chauhan (biography)

Parth R. Chauhan studied anthropology (B.A.) with a thrust in African prehistory at Rutgers University (N.J., USA), followed by an M.A. in Archaeology from Deccan College Post- graduate & Research Institute (Pune, India), completed in 1998. He has also worked as an archaeologist for firms active in Cultural Resource Management in New Jersey. He has recently completed his Ph.D. thesis entitled SITE- FORMATION STUDIES AND PALEOLITHIC INVESTIGATIONS IN THE SIWALIK HILLS OF NORTHERN INDIA: RECONSIDERING THE SOANIAN INDUSTRY from the Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield and is currently involved in Quaternary investigations in the Narmada Valley of Central India and flintknapping experiments at Attirampakkam in southern India. Parth can be contacted at: prchauhan@rediffmail.com

© Chauhan 2004
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